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Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are not guilty of sedition -- but over-the-top 'tea-party' rhetoric doesn’t help

Overheated rhetoric from Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and other 'tea party' activists may create barriers to serious conversation, but it's not seditious. When it comes to weighing free speech versus sedition, we should err on the side of freedom.

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Painting the tea party protesters or right-wing commentators as seditious, then, takes the nation a step back to a more restricted past, when dissent was criminalized. Dissent, not sedition, because whatever Klein might say, Beck and Palin are not advocating violent insurrection. Indeed, over the past few years Beck has repeatedly counseled his audience not to act violently.

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The tea party protests that Beck and Palin support are not even particularly radical in their means. They argue for the ballot, not the bullet. They gather, mostly peaceably, for noisy but contained protests. And they don’t even challenge the two-party system: According to a recent New York Times poll, tea partyers are less likely than other Americans to support a third party.

So why the confusion? In part, debate about the tea parties is muddled by fringe actions that are, in fact, seditious. That actual seditious activity is occurring, though, is all the more reason to take care with the word, so we can recognize and deal with the real thing when it occurs.

Protesting outside Congress? Not seditious. Threatening Congress members’ lives? Seditious. Painting apocalyptic fairy tales, as Beck does? Not seditious. Planning an armed militia to ward off the federal government, as an Oklahoma tea party group was? Seditious.

This is not to say that Beck, Palin, and other tea party speakers are blameless. They may not be committing sedition, but their overheated, often stunningly fictional rhetoric doesn’t help matters. It may gin up their base, but intimating that President Obama may suspend elections or suggesting that the government is coming for Grandma makes meaningful debate difficult. Such talk sets up real barriers to solving the nation’s problems at a time when America can ill afford to spend time on unserious matters. But to equate over-the-top rhetoric with sedition goes too far: When it comes to weighing free speech versus sedition, we should err on the side of freedom.

Nor is the outrage emanating from the right in the wake of Klein’s comments wholly justified. Conservative commentators have cried sedition plenty of times, as when Michelle Malkin called Students Against War members seditious in 2006. And when a Veterans Affairs nurse criticized President George W. Bush’s handling of the Iraq war and hurricane Katrina in a letter to the editor, she faced a sedition investigation for her legitimate opposition.

For Americans of every political stripe, then, the lesson is the same: Sedition is a serious charge for a serious act. We should retire it as a label for nonviolent political speech, however flawed.

Nicole Hemmer is a lecturer at Manchester College and a PhD candidate in history at Columbia University. She is writing a history of conservative media.